Celebrating Ramadan in quarantine feels familiar to Philly school principal Ny’Kisha Pettiford. Planning to break each daily fast alone transports her back 25 years.
Pettiford was the first among her family and friends to convert to Islam. When the month-long holiday came around, she hadn’t yet found a Muslim community to celebrate with, so she had to do everything by herself.
“When you’re a convert, Ramadan can be an extremely lonely time,” Pettiford said. “There’s no one to celebrate with, no family members doing the same thing as you.”
Decades later, all Muslims in Philadelphia are preparing to remain isolated during the holy month, to adhere to social distancing requirements imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Occuring during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is literally designed for closeness. There are congregate prayers, and people usually break fast in a big group dinner at sunset. The holiday’s characterized by giving to charity and helping others — which are a major challenge when you can’t connect with others.
The local Muslim community is working to adapt. With citywide in-person celebrations canceled, mosque leaders are hosting virtual prayers. At local Islamic schools, educators try to teach fasting to children online — a feat that was already hard enough in person. And people are still planning to give out hundreds of free meals each week, to keep the spirit of Ramadan alive.
All this is happening without loved ones who’ve been lost. Muslim communities are often large, and every person Billy Penn spoke with for this article knew people who were sick or had succumbed to COVID-19.
In the end, though, leaders in Philadelphia hope the quarantine will enhance the major lessons of Ramadan: patience and sacrifice.
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks,” said Salima Suswell, founder of the Philadelphia Ramadan and Eid Fund. “It feels weird because we can’t congregate and gather together.”
No Ramadan milestone at Philly schools this year
This was slated to be the first year Philly schools would close to honor Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of Ramadan’s last day.
It’s something Suswell had been pushing for since starting the Ramadan and Eid Fund two years ago — but now it won’t happen since schools are closed anyway. The pandemic has also forced the cancellation of the annual Philadelphia Eid in the Park Festival, which last year brought out 15,000 guests.
“We were expecting this year to really have over 30,000 community members,” Suswell said. “It’s a big loss for Muslims.”
For Pettiford, who runs the Islamic Education School in West Philly, it’s a missed opportunity to help parents keep their kids distracted enough not to break fast. The school lunch room usually transforms into a game room during Ramadan, with tons of fun activities, board games and books to read.
“It really does just become a way of life for us, and a lot of the kids get excited about fasting,” Pettiford said. “I’m going to stop shy of saying this is gutting. But it’s hard.”
Normally Ramadan is a time to pray together at least five times a day, if not more.
“We won’t have that type of celebration because of this whole virus outbreak. People are going to be praying in their homes, breaking their fast at home,” said Siddiq Moore, owner of Siddiq’s Water Ice. “Since I’ve been Muslim, for 28 years, this is the first time we’ve ever seen this.”
The worst part for many people is the lack of opportunity to come together and mourn recent losses.
Moore’s cousin and his uncle — both in their 70s — died from COVID-19. Same with Suswell, who lost a Muslim community leader from her Northwest Philly mosque, and a friend with whom she made the pilgrimage a few years ago.
Hosting virtual services and giving out meals
At the Bait-ul-Aafiyat Mosque in North Philly — the local chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA — Imam Abdullah Dibba is acting as the virtual support system for his community. He was the first person a congregant called when they were hospitalized three days ago.
Dibba’s mosque usually welcomes 200 or more people during its nightly Iftar dinners. Now he’s conducting virtual services, which have an average attendance of about 15 people. Even with that reduced number, it gets overwhelming to run virtual prayers and care for his two children at home.
It’s also a blessing, Dibba said. “You just kind of have to understand that if this person is calling you to uplift them, to give them something to chew on, you can’t be the one that panics,” the 30-year-old imam told Billy Penn. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
In some ways, Dibba said, Ramadan has similar themes as social distancing: sacrifice, patience, and learning the difference between a want and a need.
He sees the pandemic as an opportunity to get closer to God.
“Ramadan helps you shift from a norm to something that will help you develop yourself,” Dibba said. “When we’re isolated, it gives us that constant reminder, you now have the opportunity to focus more on things that will develop you.”
Local leaders are making sure isolation won’t limit their month-long charity works.
In lieu of the Eid in the Park Festival, Suswell is planning to deliver meals to 100 families in need during Eid al-Fitr. And out of her school, Pettiford is providing grab-and-go meals six days a week, plus virtual instruction to help kids learn about Ramadan and maintain their daily fasting.
“This life is full of hardship,” Pettiford said. “If we learn to roll with the punches, hopefully we’ll come out on the other side better.”